Yoga Really Is For Everyone

After a life-threatening injury, Matthew Sanford reconnected with his wheelchair-bound body through yoga. Now he teaches others to do the same.

Matthew Sanfordby Matthew Sanford
Photo: Andy Richter.

The unthinkable happened to my family. My father and sister were killed. I broke my neck at C-1. I broke my back at T-4, T-5, T-6. I broke both my wrists. My lung collapsed. The real mystery injury was an injury to my pancreas that left me unable to eat for a long time.

I went from a very vibrant, athletic, 13-year-old boy to a boy whose body was seemingly lost, two-thirds of which was just going to become a maintenance item. I was guided by the rehabilitation model to overcome my body and function again, but I didn’t really learn from the experience of being paralyzed.

The 13-year-old kid just believed the adults and went into a different kind of model, one that made my disability and my disabled body an object for my will to deal with it. And that’s not a good, sustainable strategy.

When I came to yoga, it was more of a landing. Imagine your super busy day. You’re going from thing to thing to thing and you finally sit down to take in what’s been going on during the day. That’s kind of what I started to do when I practiced yoga.

 

Part of why I started Mind Body Solutions was to honor my son William. [Sanford’s son William died in utero and was born along with his living twin, Paul, now 17 years old.] Trauma and loss are sensations that everyone has. Our relationship to that part of our existence is really important. You don’t just overcome your losses. You’re going to be grieving that the rest of your life. What is your relationship to the loss? Can you make it into powerful things?

We’re all having certain kinds of death all through our living. There are lots of deaths short of physically dying. A loss is the beginning of also a possibility of transformation.

Photo: Andy Richter.

The pace of our lives – with cell phones and screens and constant bombardment by advertising, the consumer-driven economy, multitasking all the time – we’re trying to do too much. We’re getting more and more disembodied.

It all seems so complex, and like there’s no simple answers, that an answer would have to be more complex in order to solve this complicated problem, but that’s part of the myth. We have to simplify our lives. We need to get more grounded in our bodies.

The idea that it could be as simple as learning to ground in your body, that this could actually change the shape of your consciousness and how you’re living. That idea, in its simplicity, turns people off.

The pace has to slow down. One of the best ways to slow down time is to be more in your body.

Our body is the best source of presence we have. It’s present in every moment of every day. Our mind is what wanes. When you touch and interact with the world more, you’re more connected.

 

The principles of a yoga pose don’t discriminate, but yoga poses do. Meaning that I can’t go upside down and do headstand, right? But the switch in an adaptive class is to recognize the core principles that are making movement and action possible.

 

Rather than adapt yoga poses, trying to make my body do what your body would do – me as a paraplegic and you, I assume, as a walking person – in Trikonasana [triangle pose], that is not the goal. I want to adapt what you feel in Trikonasana, the things that you get empowered by. I try to adapt the sensations rather than the poses. One of the core poses is Mountain Pose, called Tadasana, it’s basically standing on your feet and lifting your chest, but that feeling of being majestic and tall and expansive. I can teach those sensations whether or not someone is standing.

Mind Body Solutions helps people get access to the inner experiences of the pose without it necessarily being dependent on their ability to be able to do what looks like the pose on the outside. We have to figure out what that pose looks like in their body.

If you make a yoga student with a disability think that they have to look like a yoga student without a disability, all you’ve done is crash their head into their disability. In our adaptive yoga classes, there’s a deeper understanding of what’s happening in a yoga pose.

Photo: Andy Richter.

I teach workshops on trauma and PTSD. I have an experientially-based approach, like: When someone is traumatized, what is happening to their experience? Someone who’s been traumatized often gets “smaller,” drops their chest. I’m very interested in some of those behaviors, trying to help those change within the mind-body relationship as a way to heal.

Because I’ve been teaching people with all levels of ability, if someone comes without legs, I have ways to teach them that no one else does.

A lot of our culture is to honor them and celebrate what they did and their sacrifice, but I’m more interested in them coming home. I’m more interested in them 20 years from now. It’s one thing to say, “They’ll never be forgotten,” which is great, but let’s try to have the person be able to hug his wife or play with his kids and not have explosive responses because they’re stuck with the trauma. Our vets that live with PTSD are living in multiple planes of time. They’re not able to leave Afghanistan behind and bring themselves home. And I want to help.

I’ll never know enough. Not only are there so many conditions I don’t know about, the way that an adaptive yoga class reveals humanity, the way that it reveals that we’re all in this together, just being able to help people to get closer and closer to different poses and feel like they are participating at the sacred table of yoga, that’s a continual process. That was the beginning of my education, when I started teaching.

You only get one life. Every life has things to teach.

 

 

Matthew Sanford’s life changed instantly and forever when the car carrying then 13-year-old Sanford and his father, mother, sister, and brother tumbled down an embankment just past the Missouri-Iowa border. The accident killed Sanford’s father and sister and left Sanford paralyzed. As an adult, Sanford came to yoga seeking re-connection with his body. He was so transformed by his yoga practice that in 2002, he founded Mind Body Solutions, a Minnesota-based non-profit that teaches traditional and adaptive yoga to those suffering from trauma, loss, and disability. Sanford is a public speaker and the author of Waking: a memoir of trauma and transcendence.